I suspect you were taught that being spontaneous and acting on your impulses make you more fun to be around. Right? Unfortunately, being impulsive can also get you into trouble. Sometimes deep trouble.
How many times in your life have you regretted a decision that you made without giving the matter too much thought, or perhaps any consideration about the consequences? Did you buy into an uncertain scheme, decide to go out with someone you just met, or open an email without checking to see if it was someone you knew? Spontaneity and impulsivity, as it turns out, might actually be related to each other. When you repeatedly act impulsively and then wish you hadn’t, you just might be one of those folks who might need to back off a bit…slow down and think before you jump. Did you ever hear “look before you leap”?
Some people really are inclined to live on the wild side. Yep, they’re great fun to be with because you just never know what they’re going to do next. Whether it’s some shocking comment or exhibiting preposterous behavior, they always get a laugh; well, at least some of the time. Spoiler alert: impulsivity turns out to be more than just plain fun-seeking.
It’s possible you might say, to over-analyze this type of risky, fun-oriented behavior. Of course you are correct there, and in fact, coaches have a way of taking some of the fun out of fun-seeking. We don’t always see fun seekers as the good-time partygoers that you might imagine. Many coaches see at least some of them as being excessively rash and even dangerously impulsive. Unfortunately, you discover along the way that some fun seekers are the ones most likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. The fun those folks seek isn’t the amusement park or comedy club variety. They are looking for the kind that gives them an instant rush or high. And as most of us know, that sort of short-term fun often results in long-term anguish. Not so fun, huh. Yet, fun-seeking can take a more innocent form of enjoying novel sensations, and not those that are associated with drugs.
Unfortunately, you discover along
the way that some fun seekers
are the ones
most likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
There is a personality trait that psychologists call “novelty seeking.” Novelty seeking involves being ready to try any new things and to savor each new sensation that they experience as a result. This is called the “behavioral approach system (BAS).” BAS is a drive that senses the potential rewards that an activity may bring with it. The “behavioral inhibition system” (BIS), on the other hand, senses likely punishment and so stays away from high-risk experiences. The higher you are on the BAS scale, the more likely you’ll join happily in spur-of-the-moment exciting activities with little thought. If you’re high on the BIS, you’ll be too anxious about the risk to try something without considering all the possibilities, i.e., the possible uncertainty of untested waters loom large in your psyche.
Researchers have tested the possibility that a rare gene linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin relates to variations in the approach to novel experiences. Prior research showed that a mutation in this gene predisposed people to severe impulsivity and novelty seeking, extremes of BAS. The results of recent genetic-behavioral analyses confirmed that people high in BAS have a specific serotonin gene mutation identified in novelty-seeking mice. So, in some cases it is genetic.
Keep in mind that these studies of genetic influences on behavior will only tell the “nature,” not the “nurture” part of the story. Being really high on the scale on the “fun-seeking gene” may lead some people to a faster-paced and more novelty infused lifestyle, but life experiences can temper those tendencies and you find the person more cautious than you might expect.
Researchers have tested
the possibility that a rare gene
linked to the neurotransmitter
serotonin relates to variations
in the approach to novel experiences.
On the other hand, stress may send some genetically programmed fun seekers way over the edge to extreme behavior. A Yale University study tested nearly 200 men and women, measuring their apparent levels of stress and alcohol use. They also asked them to report on their own impulsivity. As you would expect, people high in life stress also reported higher than normal levels of alcohol use. However, the alcohol-stress link was greater for people who saw themselves as impulsive. However, those folks who tested as more impulsive on the actual laboratory task didn’t show the stress-impulsivity-alcohol link.
Apparently stress triggers more extreme reactions in individuals who recognize their own impulsivity, who in turn become even more likely to attempt to ease their suffering with drinking. See the downward spiral of that? Impulsivity may also place individuals at risk for eating disorders. It has been found that girls higher in impulsivity had higher rates both of binge drinking and disordered eating patterns.
It’s important to try and understand, though, that some of what we call the impulsive side of fun-seeking is actually more oriented toward “sensation seeking,” or gaining pleasure from new experiences. A British study of British men and women asked participants to provide life history information on their frequency of sexual partners. Impulsivity alone didn’t predict the rate of sexual liaisons, but with sensation-seeking types it did. Being impulsive alone doesn’t seem to make you more likely to have sex with multiple partners. The desire for thrill and excitement does have an influence; go figure. It was more the seeking of sensation and not an inability to inhibit impulses that lead the sensation–seeking fun seeker into a more adventurous sex life.
Ok, so now you see some of the risks, but what about the potential strengths of people with strong fun-seeking tendencies, especially the kind that doesn’t lead to overly risky behaviors? There is a personality factor called “positive emotionality.” It is the ability to experience feelings such as joy and enthusiasm. That is a fabulous trait where being happy in life is concerned.
Yet if your desire to have fun is driven by your inability to curb your natural impulses, you are likely headed right for the kind of fun that in the long run can lead to a lifestyle of drug and alcohol abuse. On top of that, if you’re high on the impulsivity scale, you just might find it more difficult to deal with stress and you may have a history of disordered eating patterns.
It is considered likely to be in the middle between being completely unconstrained on the one hand, and overly inhibited on the other. To have the “right degree” of wildness, you can consider these five steps to curb your impulsivity.
First: Just stop and think before you act. It’s rarely a bad idea to reflect, if only for a few seconds, on your anticipated actions. Before you hit that “reply” button, first make sure it’s not the “reply all” button. If you’re angry at your partner, be quiet, don’t lash out right away. Do a short reality check seeing if there’s another way to resolve the problem than unleashing your uninhibited emotions. Needless to say, the same applies to hookups. There’s no reason not to examine your motivation, checking to be sure that you’re going to be safe, both physically and emotionally, before you dive in.
Second: Try and get some insight into your impulsivity. As the Yale study showed, people who feel that they’re impulsive are more likely to handle stress by using alcohol—which carries its own set of problems—than the rest of us. Even if your genes are as programmed toward the BAS as those unfortunate lab mice were, you still have the advantage. They weren’t born with a prefrontal cortex to guide their decisions; you were, so use it.
Third: Look for ways to be funny that don’t involve your acting like an out-of-control adolescent. You might have a well-earned reputation for being ready and willing to do anything on a dare, but I promise you that no one will think less of you if you exercise a little grown-up restraint. You might surprise yourself and discover that your natural amiability lets you to amuse others through your intelligence and wit, not your mindful witlessness.
Fourth: Separate sensation-seeking from novelty seeking in your thinking. Having fun through new experiences really can enhance your life, but novelty seeking for its own sake can lead you to dangerous levels of needless risk. You will discover that getting real enjoyment out of your experiences is what will make you the happiest. It doesn’t have to produce the same rush as doing something completely new and different every time.
Fifth: Ask the people you know and care about you to perform a reality check, the kind that lets you know if you are heading off the rails into dangerous water. If your fun crowd of acquaintances gets vicarious thrills from watching you perform, egging you on to more extreme behavior, it’s pretty likely that they don’t have your best interests at heart. I know you probably feel differently, but give it some thought. The ones who really care about you are the ones who will probably cringe with every one of your extreme escapades. They will be sure to tell you they think you’re placing yourself at too much risk. As hard as it might be, listening and taking their advice can help you put the brakes on and give you time to reconsider what you are planning.
The least complicated kind of fun loving is usually the kind that allows you to feel the happiest and will also get you into the least amount of trouble. (boring, I know… but you will get used to it).
In the end, the “high” you get from those positive emotions is what will contribute to your long-term happiness. So give some thought to not living on the wild side quite so much. Let those impulsive moments just pass you by and look for the opportunities to enjoy life and not risk it quite so much.
Been a little to wild lately?
Schedule some time and we can talk about how things are going.